The Hallelujah Trail
|The Hallelujah Trail|
|Directed by||John Sturges|
|Produced by||John Sturges|
|Written by||John Gay, based on the novel by Bill Gulick|
|Music by||Elmer Bernstein|
|Cinematography||Robert L. Surtees, ASC|
|Edited by||Ferris Webster|
|Distributed by||United Artists|
The film was one of several large-scale widescreen, long-form "epic" comedies produced in the 1960s, much like The Great Race and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, combined with the epic grandeur of the Western genre. The movie is part of a group, which was filmed in Ultra Panavision 70 and presented in selected theaters via the oversized Super Cinerama process. Stuntman Bill Williams was killed while performing a stunt involving a wagon going over a cliff. The scene was kept in the movie.
The film is presented in a pseudo-documentary style, with a tongue-in-cheek narrator (John Dehner) providing historical background and context, and periodically interrupting the story to point out animated charts illustrating strategic positions of various groups.
"Buffalo were feeding ravenously. Beaver were damming and storing with strange vigor. Horses and dogs were becoming shaggy-haired as never before. And it could be sensed in the booming, bustling mining town of Denver. Most historians agree that the events leading to the Battle of Whiskey Hills and the subsequent 'disaster' at Quicksand Bottoms began here in Denver at a miners' meeting..."
In the year 1867, signs that the approaching winter will be a hard one produce agitation in the burgeoning mining town of Denver, Colorado, as the hard-drinking citizenry fear a shortage of whiskey. Taking advice from Oracle Jones (Donald Pleasence), a local guide and seer (but only when under the influence of alcohol), the populace arrange for a mass shipment, forty wagons full of whiskey, from the Wallingham Freighting Company. The wagon train heads out, under the direction of company owner Frank Wallingham (Brian Keith), regarded as a "taxpayer and a good Republican."
This cargo then becomes the target for several diverse groups, each with their own leaders and plans. Young Capt. Paul Slater (Jim Hutton) of the United States Cavalry is assigned by Fort Russell commander Col. Thaddeus Gearhart (Burt Lancaster) to escort the Wallingham Wagon Train, and merely wishes to carry out his orders. A group of Irish teamsters, hired as wagon drivers, wishes to strike unless whiskey rations are distributed. Crusading temperance leader Cora Templeton Massingale (Lee Remick) and her followers, informed of the alcoholic cargo, wish to intercept the train and destroy its contents; the group is escorted by a second cavalry division under the command of a reluctant Col. Gearhart.
Gearhart's daughter (Pamela Tiffin) is engaged to Slater and entranced by Mrs. Massingale's message. Despite their extremely different personalities and inability to see eye to eye, the weatherbeaten Gearhart and beautiful Cora Massingale fall in love. (Beneath her composure and grace, even her occasional ribbing against him, Cora is infatuated with Gearhart from the moment he rides into the fort and spends much of the film trying subtly to win his affection.)
Other interested parties include Sioux Indians, led by "real boozer" Chief Five Barrels (Robert J. Wilke) and Walks-Stooped-Over (Martin Landau), and a Denver citizens militia, led by Clayton Howell (Dub Taylor) and guided by Oracle, concerned about obtaining their precious supply of drinkables. Inevitably, the various groups converge, and the ensuing property struggle is played out through a series of comic set pieces and several diplomatic overtures by an increasingly weary Gearhart.
Evaluation in film guides
Leonard Maltin's Movie Guide (2013 edition) gives The Hallelujah Trail 2½ stars (out of 4) describing Lee Remick's character as a "rambunctious temperance leader" and concluding the write-up with "amiable but lumbering Western satire goes on and on". The capsule review also mentions that the film "includes an overture, intermission/entr'acte, exit music". Steven H. Scheuer's Movies on TV (1972–73 edition) had a much lower opinion, giving it its lowest rating of 1 star (out of 4) and deciding that there is "[V]ery little to cheer about in this muddled western saga, as director John Sturges and the stars stumble down a long — almost three hours — and banal path that has been explored much more satisfactorily by countless film makers in the past". Describing the plot as "clumsy" and singling out "thirsty Hollywood-caricature Indians", the review concludes that "Lancaster looks understandably bored to death, and Lee Remick is miscast and wasted". By the time of the 1986–87 edition, Scheuer slightly ups the rating to 1½ stars and shortens the capsule to a single sentence which calls it a "clumsy comedy" and mentions the "thirsty Indians".
As in Maltin, The Motion Picture Guide (1987 edition) assigned 2½ stars (out of 5), concluding that "[B]asically, this is one-joke plot with a few vignettes and gags strung on along the way. The whole thing is held together by an understated narration by Dehner, which itself is fairly clever. Still, the depiction of the Indians in this film is more than a little unsettling." Two additional guides rank Trail higher and lower — Mick Martin's and Marsha Porter's DVD & Video Guide (2007 edition) dispenses 3 stars (out of 5), reminding that "[T]hose who fondly remember television's F Troop should adore this cavalry comedy", concluding that it is "[O]verlong, but fun nonetheless", while Videohound's Golden Movie Retriever (2011 edition) throws it only two bones (out of possible four), mentioning Lee Remick's "bevy of ladies against liquor" standing "between the shipment and the would-be whistle whetters". Videohound concludes that it is a "[L]imp Western satire directed by Preston Sturges' brother [Videohound is incorrect — the two directors were not related], who fared much better when he kept a straight face (he also directed The Great Escape)".
Among British references, Leslie Halliwell, in his Film and Video Guide (5th edition, 1985), gave no stars (Halliwell's top rating is 4), dismissing it as an "[A]bsurdly inflated, prolonged, uninventive comedy western with poor narrative grip; all dressed up and nowhere to go".
- Glenn Lovell, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, University of Wisconsin Press, 2008 p250
- Tino Balio, United Artists: The Company The Changed the Film Industry, Uni of Wisconsin Press, 1987 p 185
- Anticipated rentals accruing distributors in North America. See "Top Grossers of 1965", Variety, 5 January 1966 p 36
- "He was not related to director Preston Sturges" (IMDb biographical details for John Sturges)
- The Hallelujah Trail at the Internet Movie Database
- The Hallelujah Trail at the American Film Institute Catalog
- The Hallelujah Trail at the TCM Movie Database
- The Hallelujah Trail at AllMovie
- The Hallelujah Trail at Rotten Tomatoes
- The Hallelujah Trail at TV Guide (revised form of this 1987 write-up was originally published in The Motion Picture Guide)